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For 125 years, athletic supporters have had celebrated ride

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's hard to envision the male equivalent of The Moment, especially if it also were to come off during the, um, World Cup.

  (Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

Guy kicks the winning goal and whips off his shorts, exposing his male equivalent of the sports bra:

The athletic supporter.

Actually, he might not even be wearing one, since the supporter lately has been losing support, squeezed out by newfangled gear like "compression performance shorts." But this is the time for a more uplifting story, because this is the year that the jock strap, as it's popularly known, turns 125.

It all goes back to stones -- the cobblestones that paved many of Boston's streets in 1874. Nice, unless you were one of the "bike jockeys," as they were known, who pedaled one of the period's high-wheel b-b-b-b-b-b-bicycles.


Into the breach stepped the Bike Web Co., which designed the "bike jockey strap." A century and a quarter later, the company, now the Bike Athletic Co. of Knoxville, Tenn., has sold more than 300 million supporters, which have become synonymous with the sports nuts who wear them.

"A lot of people don't know the origins of that," says Ed Christman, marketing director for Bike's "sports medicine/protective" division. These days, the company makes a wide array of protective gear and apparel, but it still has a warm spot for the granddaddy of them all.

"It's the flagship," says Christman, who explains, for those of you who've never seen one: "A jock is basically a pouch and a waistband and two straps" that wrap around the back of each leg.

"There are physicians who believe that during athletic events it helps minimize fatigue, because of the way men are built, plus it keeps things out of the way," he says. "We hope it helps people to perform better, or at least more comfortably."

Bike isn't the only maker of supporters (other brands include "Futuro"), but it's the best known, and it still makes "hundreds of thousands" a year at a factory in Mountain City, Tenn. And while the "No. 10," as it's still called, hasn't changed much in 125 years, the company continues to make upgrades, like adding 50 percent more rubber support bands, and rolling out new models.

"There's been a lot of , I guess you might say excitement, about what we do with supporters," says Christman, after he's described the new black-dyed version ("It's done very well in the NFL") and the patented and just-now-being-introduced "Pro-Fit" adjustable that allows the wearer to raise or lower the pouch, via Velcro.

"Our goal as a company," he says, "is to stay the leader in what might be a benign business."

But even with slipping sales, the jock strap has a strong hold on the psyche in this country, where -- let's not forget -- the first sports bra was made from two of them. A few years ago, at an inventors show right here in Pittsburgh, a Florida man was pushing a female jock strap, whatever that is (Bike makes a foam-padded "female athletic protector").

Of course, the jock's pull is strongest on males, especially among, say, middle-aged men like Christman, who remember being required to wear a supporter -- along with a white T-shirt and white shorts -- in gym class.

Most of them spent at least some time wearing jocks on their heads, or snapping each other's straps, or slingshotting them across the locker room. There's something about jocks that makes guys act like, well, guys.

"Mike Webster was the best at that I ever saw," says Rodgers Freyvogel, the Pittsburgh Steelers equipment manager who's seen his share of jock-ularity in the 20 years he's been with the team.

Webster, the Hall of Fame center, pulled the classic prank: He'd sneak into other players' lockers and rub heat balm into their athletic supporters.

"Ten minutes later," Freyvogel remembers, "the player would be burning like crazy!"

You might think football players would wear protective plastic cups in their supporters, as do hockey players and baseball catchers, but hardly any do. The only Steeler Freyvogel's seen wear a cup was Justin Strzelczyk, who'd slip one in every time they played the rival Cleveland Browns because, "He'd get kicked quite a bit."

The Steelers, who open this season against the reborn Browns, are just starting training camp with a shipment of brand-new supporters that Freyvogel and his staff took out to Latrobe last week.

"We ordered and received 532," the equipment manager reports, adding, "We get two sizes: One X, which most of the players wear. And then we get a Double X."


"That's the waist band."

There are 80 players at camp, and each player gets two supporters -- one in each of two laundry bags that hold complete changes of practice clothing. The clothing gets washed right in the mesh bags each night, but just in case a bag opens up, each player's supporter has his number written on it.

The rest of the new supporters will be used for games this season, with players getting new ones as the elastic tuckers out. Almost all the Steelers wear athletic them, but some -- maybe a dozen -- do not, perhaps because they prefer the support offered by tight compression shorts.

All jocks -- that is, male athletes -- have opinions about wearing a jock, or something else, or nothing. Doctors can't even agree on their supposed merits (they don't prevent hernias) or demerits (jock itch).

"They're too uncomfortable," says Jeff Smith, a former football and basketball player at Peters Township High School who oversees athletic supporter sales as hard goods manager at Dick's Sporting Goods in Robinson. Lots of athletes (or their parents) buy jocks there at the start of the sports seasons. But he says more pass over the supporters, which retail for $3 to $6, for compression, sliding or biking shorts that cost $15 to $30. "It is trending that way."

Of course, the jock could bounce back. What could be more hip than a Jolt Cola jock strap , which you can buy for $7.80 on the Internet (

For many, the athletic supporter continues to represent the passage from boy to manhood -- something to be pulled on with pride. Who can forget the passions that were aroused last year when Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Kendall defended his teammate Al Martin to some critical Post-Gazette letter-writers that he dismissed as "joke-book fans who have never put on (an athletic supporter) ..."

Someone here at the PG made the "athletic supporter" change apparently to protect sensitive readers, but "jock strap" or "jockstrap" has appeared in the paper 46 times in the 1990s. That included a '94 item about an ESPN show on which O.J. Simpson revealed his most embarrassing moment, when on one of his famous long runs, his strap snapped.

There are no jocks enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, according to a spokesman who fielded that question, suspiciously.

The Baseball Hall of Fame never called back.

But cups runneth over at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., which describes itself as "an international shrine that promotes basketball at every level." Indeed: Librarian and archivist Doug Stark says, "We have about a half-dozen jock straps," including Clyde Drexler's, Charles Barkley's, Anthony Hardaway's and Michael Jordan's. The last two are inside the players' respective lockers in the re-created locker room display.

"We don't have jock straps hanging everywhere," Stark says.

There is a breed of fan so avid that they'd want to more than see a pro's used supporter. Don Talbot sold a couple last year at his Sports Expo shop in Overbrook, which he says has the area's largest selection of sports memorabilia, especially "game worn equipment."

"Most people want a jersey or a helmet or something they can physically sit out in their house and not be embarrassed by," he acknowledges. But he knows all kinds. So when he got his hands on four Steelers jocks last year, he put them in the clear plastic display cases made for baseballs, and sold all four. You know, discreetly.

"Jerome Bettis," he says, "was my best one," fetching about $20.

Again, there's something about how jock straps make guys act.

"Our manly egos," quips Paul Child, who's worn them on both sides of the Atlantic as a soccer player in his native England and, later, in Pittsburgh, with the late Spirit indoor team.

"I'd say, 'Has anyone got my extra, extra, extra, extra large jock strap?' " he recalls, laughing at another old jock joke.

Nowadays, he's assistant coach of Pittsburgh's new pro soccer team, the Riverhounds. And like many of his strapping young players, he's forsaken a jock for "really tight briefs."

"It's a shame to think about it."

Alas, in the locker room at Quaker Valley High School, where the 'Hounds practice, you don't see as many athletic supporters as you would have in the old days.

Do you wear one, Justin Evans? "I usually do, but not right now," the midfielder says, as he sits on a weight bench, taping up his foot. The 22-year-old, who was all-state at Peters Township, wasn't issued his first jock strap until he got to Penn State.

Straight away, he and his roommate put theirs on, Evans also put one on his head and, wearing nothing else, the roommate pushed him in a luggage cart down the hall of their dorm.

Pulling off his shorts to celebrate a winning goal wouldn't be that big of a deal, he says with a grin, before trotting off to the field.

"I'll give it a try!"

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